Carla Bley: The Further Adventures of the Lone Arranger Page 2

"Yes, there is: Sonny Rollins! That would be incredible. I thought I had it lined up at one point, but it turned out that the group commissioning me thought I knew him and I thought they knew him and I just didn't feel I could call him out of the blue."

Bley's art depends on powerful solo voices, so a project with Rollins would, in all probability, have successfully preserved both artists' strengths. Bley writes perfect tunes for extended improvisation—long melodic lines that are seldom tricky or involve convoluted chord changes. She modestly attributes this to a lack of ability on her part, but there's a fine line between naïve and unschooled. Her music has the same sense of wonder that Matisse brought to his cutouts and gouaches—she works with bright colors and large forms, but dances lightly on the lines lesser artists feel obliged to color within.

"There's a kind of music I'm known for and there's the kind of music I aspire to, and they're quite different. I just want to be...regular, and I think irregular is more like it. I'm working very hard to know more and more about music, to know more and more about the instruments, to write better and better, and a lot of people think that's the least endearing quality I have—they prefer the old me who didn't know what chord changes were, and didn't know what you couldn't do. Maybe I'm just losing my ignorance rapidly, and my style as well. The truth is, I still don't know what the right thing to do is, so I guess I won't lose my 'originality.'"

Scant chance—the range of music she covers in her 4x4 CD bears testimony to that. "Sidewinders in Paradise" depends, in part, on found art. In 1999, Steve Swallow and Bley vacationed on a small island in the Caribbean. At dusk, the pearly-eyed thrashers sang and conversed, frequently responding to Bley and Swallow as they played duets. Bley began transcribing thrasher melodies and recorded some over one of the cassettes she'd brought to the island, a copy of Lee Morgan's funk classic, "Sidewinder." The cassette recorder recorded only one channel of the birds—the other retained the Morgan song's rhythm figure. Delighted by the juxtaposition, Bley incorporated it into her piece, along with two-note frog calls and the melody to "Stranger in Paradise." Somehow it all works—when 4x4 performed it as an encore at the Knitting Factory, the room erupted with delight, swaying along with the Morgan rhythms and birdcalls.

The day I interviewed her, Ms. Bley had just completed another piece. "It's called 'Happy Honking.' There are a lot of car horns, and it's at a very fast tempo. I had a lot of fun just finding out what car horns sound like...why are they always in thirds? And then trying to use Doppler effects. I haven't been in any traffic over the last two months, but there are some commercials on TV that use car horns and I studied them and I just used my memory. And sometimes, if you don't get it right, that's more interesting than if you got it totally right."

In lesser hands, it might have been merely cute, but Bley's casual dismissal of her art hides how hard she works at it. In her upstate New York home, she lives a work-oriented life—writing in her upstairs aerie, gardening for contemplation, and retiring to her downstairs recording studio to work on her recordings.

These are the habits of a hard worker. Her legacy of 23 albums is also evidence of a deeply ingrained work ethic, as well as a measure of her success. Not bad for an arranger living in an age of small ensembles.

"Well, first you have to realize that I formed my own company when no one else wanted to record me. So I made sure my music got out there despite the fact that everybody writes tunes these days.

"If the soloist is good enough, he doesn't need an arranger. A lot of people can't write, so they play the tunes fast just to get to the solos and, if they're great soloists, they can get away with it. But if you're going to write or arrange for jazz, which is the soloist's art, you'd better be good—or you're just taking away, you're not adding anything to it."

What about Bley herself? When she arranges, does she tell her players what she wants them to improvise?

"Oh, I never give any direction to soloists at all. I just give 'em the changes. I wouldn't think of pointing them anywhere at all. I did that once. It was 20 years ago, with my six-horn group. I don't remember who the musicians were, but I criticized their solos—I said they sounded like diarrhea and they got really mad. I think they tightened up after that, but the problem was mine. I had the wrong guys in the band.

"It's wonderful what [my four guys come up with on stage—and I'm just sitting up there laughing because, sitting at the piano, you've got the best seat in the house. I hate to solo myself, but I sure do like listening to them."

So did the audience at the Knitting Factory. As the band played, the room sat enthralled through solo after solo. We laughed along with the witty "Baseball" and nearly forgot to breathe during the hushed modal masterpiece "Utviklingssang." Bley may have had the best seat in the house, but there were a few hundred listeners that night who wouldn't have been anyplace else on earth.